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What Causes Atrial Fibrillation

written by: R. Elizabeth C. Kitchen • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 8/5/2011

What causes atrial fibrillation? Here we will explore the possible causes of this condition and discuss them.

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    Atrial fibrillation is a condition in which the two upper chambers of the heart beat irregularly and chaotically, and not in coordination with the heart's two lower chambers. In itself, atrial fibrillation is not typically life-threatening, but it is a medical emergency and can result in complications. So, what are the causes of atrial fibrillation?

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    High Blood Pressure

    Blood pressure is considered high when systolic pressure is above 140 and diastolic pressure is above 90, in most cases. In addition to possibly causing atrial fibrillation, this condition may also cause aortic dissection, brain damage, heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure and other complications. Treatment involves lifestyle changes, and in some cases, medications.

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    Sleep Apnea

    This sleep disorder can be serious and is characterized by breathing repeatedly starting and stopping as the patient sleeps. There are two main types: central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea. Some patients have a combination of these known as complex sleep apnea. This condition may cause congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation and other cardiovascular issues. Treatment may include continuous positive airway pressure, surgery and lifestyle changes.

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    Sick Sinus Syndrome

    This condition is a collection of different heart rhythm disorders, including sinus bradycardia, bradycardia-tachycardia and tachycardias. Atrial fibrillation is a type of tachycardia. If no symptoms are occurring, patients may not need treatment. Tachycardias that do require treatment often benefit from medications and radiofrequency ablation.

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    Stimulant Exposure

    When asking what are the causes of atrial fibrillation, patients have to consider stimulants. Examples of stimulants include caffeine, certain medications and tobacco. Stimulants cause the heart rate to increase and this may result in irregular heart rhythms, such as atrial fibrillation.

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    Heart Attack

    A heart attack occurs when the blood vessels responsible for providing the heart with blood are blocked, resulting in enough oxygen not getting to the heart. As a result, the heart muscle is permanently damaged or it dies. In addition to atrial fibrillation, complications may include cardiogenic shock, pericarditis, stroke, congestive heart failure, pulmonary embolism and ventricular tachycardia. A heart attack is a medical emergency. Treatment includes a variety of different medications, angioplasty and stent placement and coronary artery bypass surgery.

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    Emphysema

    This condition is characterized by the flow of air being limited upon exhaling. This condition occurs when the bronchioles are gradually destroyed. Smoking is the most common cause. This condition can worsen heart failure, diabetes and other chronic conditions. It may result in atrial fibrillation and an acute COPD exacerbation. Treatments include lifestyle changes, quitting smoke, bronchodilators, GERD treatment, pulmonary rehabilitation programs, inhaled steroids, supplemental oxygen, antibiotics, surgery, pneumonia and influenza vaccines and transplant.

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    Other Possible Causes

    In addition to the causes listed above, other things may cause atrial fibrillation. These include:

    • Lung diseases
    • Abnormal heart valves
    • Overactive thyroid
    • Previous heart surgery
    • Stress related to surgery, pneumonia or another illness
    • Congenital heart defects
    • Metabolic imbalance
    • Viral infections
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    Resources

    American Heart Association. (2011). Atrial Fibrillation. Retrieved on January 12, 2011 from American Heart Association: http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4451

    MayoClinic. (2009). Atrial Fibrillation. Retrieved on January 12, 2011 from MayoClinic: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/atrial-fibrillation/DS00291